The Short Films of K.Rajagopal (I)

The 7th edition of the recent Singapore Short Cuts featured a retrospective of local filmmaker K. Rajagopal. 4 of his films - I Can't Sleep Tonight (1995), The Glare (1996), Absence (1997) and Brother (1997) - will be reviewed in this article, while The New World and Timeless - which were made after he broke out of his 10-year hiatus - will be reviewed in a separate article.

Set in the heart of Little India, I Can't Sleep Tonight tells of three individuals - all on the run for various reasons - and how their paths cross one night when the police close in. These displaced individuals, may be strangers to each other but they share one thing: they are all sleepless at night because they live in fear of being caught, and they are constantly yearning for home. When these three individuals eventually meet at a common area while on the run from the police, they silently show their solidarity and find solace in each other. For one night, they are each others' home and when the day breaks they all go their separate ways.

The film is almost devoid of any dialogue, choosing to employ a haunting voiceover that is assisted with stark, bleak images of the three different individuals. Even though some of the shots aren't very polished, with the occasional shaky shot and poor lighting, these are minor faults and understandable since K. Rajagopal was working within tight constraints. He freely admitted during the post screening discussion that back then he lacked technical knowledge and was learning from the process of filming itself. Thankfully, I do think the shaky camerawork and poor lighting do lend themselves to the docu-drama feel of the film and make the film feel more authentic.

The Glare tells the story of a woman who, faced with the harsh reality of an abusive drunkard husband, frequently escapes into her own fantastical world inspired by the television programmes she watches on television everyday. Squatting outside an electronics store everyday to watch programmes screened on the televisions on display, the irritated store owner eventually gives the woman a television set for free. The elated woman is shown celebrating in a wonderfully quirky and whimsical scene. One day, her drunkard husband finds out about the television set and destroys it, and the woman, now devoid of her fantasy outlet and unable to escape to her own little world, eventually goes out of her mind.

The woman is shut down, barely talking to anyone. She appears listless and submissive to her abusive husband. She works hard to support her child, as well as her good-for-nothing husband. She faces racial discrimination. Nothing seems to be going well for her.

There is one element in the film that redeems this landscape of despair. It is the dreams and hope of a woman. A woman - despite having no reason to be optimistic about life, and should have otherwise morphed into a cruel, bitter person - who shows extraordinary hope despite the oppressing circumstances she faces. These are wonderfully shown in kooky, hilarious (day)dream sequences where the woman transposes herself into the situation of characters in the television programmes she watches.

On the other hand, the film also, in a rather self reflexive way, warns of the dangers of obsession with the media and television. From the get go we see the stark image of the woman, already out of her mind, in a trance like state. This bleak shot is once again played out at the end. Despite the few moments of respite of hope we get in an otherwise dark film, K. Rajagopal cleverly makes it clear from the start that Hollywood type endings are not going to happen in this film. We sympathize with the woman because we know despite her strength and her hope, hers is ultimately a story of tragedy. Rajagopal deftly hits a home run in sending out a brutally honest message to us: we can (and should)have dreams, but we still need to live our lives in the real world and not have our heads in the clouds all the time.

In Absence, a young man comes to terms with issues in his past as he and his mother cope with the loss of their patriarch. He chooses to express himself with art, while his mother finds solace in religion. Both of them have skeletons in their closet, however, and ultimately this secret will both unite and tear them apart.

Compared to the previous 2 films, Absence shows much more polish in its technical aspects and features some absolutely stunning cinematography. The rain sequence featuring a man bathing struck me as particularly memorable.

Ultimately, the film explores the clash between freedom and obligation, and between modernity and tradition with a deft and sensitive treatment. The film basically oscillates between shots of the mother and the son for the first half of the film, tracking the contrast in the ways they cope with the death of the young man's father. In this day and age, the characters may seem to be too caricatured and perhaps the metaphor of art as freedom a little too cliched, but back in 1997 when this was filmed I believed it captured the zeitgeist of its time and the pain of families torn apart by differences in mindsets.

Brother tells of an unlikely friendship forged by two individuals: Ganga, an illegal immigrant, and Richard, a seemingly middle class working man. Put together by unlikely circumstances, their friendship grows deeper and they spend more time together. However, just as the film reaches its climax, tragedy ensues for this precarious friendship as Richard is forced to choose between the two very different worlds that each of them inhabits.

K. Rajagopal deftly injects much humour and masculine intimacy into the friendship between Richard and Ganga, tapping into the cultural habits of Indian males, and the product is a surprisingly tender, moving piece. The sudden climactic end works well in highlighting the tragic nature of the friendship, where circumstances are too strong to overcome and ultimately work to pry two people apart. Despite the sad ending, the film manages to steer clear of overwrought melodrama. K. Rajagopal shows much self assurance with this film, choosing to take a slow, steady pace with the film, capturing the little joys of a burgeoning friendship in a gentle and affecting manner. I felt that some of the shots were they happened to accidentally bump into each other at various locations were too contrived, but ultimately they do not take too much from the authenticity of the film, because the characters are believable and also commands our sympathy.

These four films, which are markedly different from K. Rajagopal's two newer ones (which will be reviewed later), are deeply inspired by situations and events he has witnessed in real life. While the films may not be sophisticated in its form, they have an authenticity that is undeniable and a poignancy that is raw and affecting. The first two films had some technical shoddiness that made some shots disorienting to watch (K. Rajagopal was charmingly self-deprecating and admitted he was still learning the ropes back then), but I thought Absence and Brother were much more technically competent. His earlier films may not be as polished as his later works, or even the student works of this day, but I find these films a breath of fresh air from the barrage of short films I watch these days because of its unpretentious qualities and minimalism. In these earlier films, K. Rajagopal keeps to his narrative and tells his stories with conviction, capturing the rawness and emotion the actors bring to his smart scripts. Even back then, during his initial foray in film making, he does not get sucked into the trappings of arthouse cinema, of which many amateur filmmakers are guilty off. His films have a plainness and minimalism that preserves their rawness and sensitivity, and does not include the redundant 'artsy' shots that punctuate so many amateur filmmaker's works. His is local narrative cinema at its best.
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